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Ed Harris is the best thing about "Enemy at the Gates" and "Pollock."

History Lessons 

Ed Harris' performances transcend his material in two historical films

I went into Enemy at the Gates not knowing much about it other than that the ads made it look like a sprawling World War II epic and carried a quote (from one of those faux-critics known in the business as "blurb whores") likening it to a cross between Saving Private Ryan and High Noon. Given that those two movies are nothing if not quintessentially American, I would say that any moviegoer who wants to take Paramount Pictures to court under the truth-in-advertising statutes should have an easy time of it.

Turns out that Enemy at the Gates is none other than--get this--a big-budget paean to Soviet Communism under the gallant leadership of Joe Stalin. You remember Joe: the insane mass murderer who slaughtered upwards of 60 million of his countrymen. The movie takes place during the Battle of Stalingrad, a city named for the indefatigable butcher. Concerning the Soviets' efforts to stave off the Nazi invasion of 1942-43, it stars two British actors, Jude Law and Joseph Fiennes, as, respectively, a sharp-shooting sniper whose successes rally the Russian side and the Khrushchev sidekick who makes the shooter famous. This is not, I should add, an art movie, or anything approaching it. It's a large-scale popcorn movie of the sort that proffers good guys and bad guys for our rooting enjoyment. Only, here the good guys are Soviet minions doing Crazy Joe's dirty work.

How did such a daft thing ever get made, much less find its way into American theaters? The best way to approach this brain-teaser is, first of all, to heed the famous advice of All the President's Men: "Follow the money." Paramount Pictures is releasing the movie in the U.S., and though Hollywood studios are legendarily prone to bad creative decisions, you can bet that no studio is crazy enough to launch--and serve as the main financial sponsor of--a big action movie in which the heroes are all Soviet communists. No, the explanation begins with the fact that Enemy at the Gates was underwritten by French, British, German and Irish production companies.

Variety has a gleefully insulting term for this type of movie: "Europudding." Back in the '60s and '70s, such international co-productions (as they are officially known) made a bad name for themselves when their basic gambit--packaging a gallery of stars from different countries into a slick entertainment guaranteed to cross borders--always seemed to result in a riot of cultural inautheticity and artistic flatulence. Due to the 1990s commercial erosion of the European cinema, this unfortunate breed has seen a faltering resurgence of late. Nowadays its key elements are that the films are always made in English, no matter where the story is set or what country is footing the bill (usually, of course, it's several European companies, government-sponsored or not); and the stars are primarily British or American.

So that explains the type of film Enemy at the Gates is. But what about its championing of Stalin's brutal regime? You can be sure that such an idea did not originate anywhere near the former Soviet Union. The Russians may have very good reason to pay homage to the million of their soldiers who died in the Battle of Stalingrad, but they would probably be the last to mount such a memorial as a Hollywood-style celebration of Stalin. Come to think of it, the idea isn't exactly a natural for the British, the Irish or the Germans, although some of their investors ponied up for this production. If I add in the detail that the bad guy here, the Nazi, is played by an American, Ed Harris, can you guess the film's creative source?

That's right--the French. Enemy at the Gates was directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and cowritten by Annaud and Alain Godard, and I literally can't imagine it being otherwise. The moral blindness of the French left remains one of the last century's most chilling stories, and Annaud's movie provides a dispiriting footnote, proving that it survives into the current century.

There is, in other words, an ideological as well as commercial agenda to this film's bizarre use of history, and it could not be further from the understanding that most U.S. filmgoers will take into the theater. To Americans and other small-d democrats the world over, the 20th century represented a protracted war against totalitarianism and tyrants of both right and left. The fascism was pretty much the same whether it called itself Nazi or Communist, although if you want to get picky about it, the leftist variety killed many, many more millions and took decades longer to vanquish than its rightist cousins did.

To many on the French left, however, this distinction of democracy versus totalitarianism was spurious to begin with, and they particularly hate to think of World War II that way. To them, the century was about--and this schema continues--the struggle between left and right, nothing more. According to this view, the genocidal maniac Stalin was, somehow, a good guy. And the Americans? Why, they were and are just another rightist foe, much the same as the Nazis, if perhaps not quite so malign. For any Frenchman who thinks this way you can imagine how galling Saving Private Ryan was, with its reminder that Americans helped save the French not once but twice in the last century. What better way to wreak a little snotty revenge than to mount a war movie that rips off Spielberg's at every turn, but features Soviets as heroes and has as its Nazi villain an American star?

After the horrific scenes of Sarajevo's "sniper's alley," witnessed by people the world over in the 1990s, it takes a particularly Gallic form of insensitivity to make a movie hero of a sniper, but Annaud clearly wasn't going to let contemporary resonances get in his way, either. And given that his film is essentially reactionary, it's not too surprising that this supposed epic reduces to a predictable cat-and-mouse game that would've been considered yawnsomely old-hat 50 years ago.

Jude Law, a good actor who lately has been veering toward roles that are liable to get him labeled a "male bimbo," is Zaitsev, the doe-eyed sharpshooter whose good aim gets him elevated to hero status once he falls into the Stalinist propaganda machine run by Danilov (Fiennes). Danilov bills Zaitsev as "the shepherd boy from the Urals," and when the flummoxed Nazis send against him an officer named Koenig (Harris) who's also an aristocrat, the mythic-Marxist table is set. As Danilov, Annaud's too obvious stand-in too obviously proclaims: "It's not just the conflict of two nations--it's the essence of class stuggle!"

You remember class struggle. That was the opiate Stalin fed to the millions of human sheep he led to slaughter. It's also been the longtime stock in trade of millionaire French moviemakers eager to keep their gauchiste bona fides up to date. Miraculously, more than a decade after the Soviet utopia it exemplified fell into history's wastebasket, it still inspires producers in several European countries to spend scads of money churning out glossy, anachronistic propaganda. And we wonder that European cinema seems to be in a state of collapse. Could intellectual bankruptcy have anything to do with that?

Actually, ideology isn't the horse that drives this sorry cart; it's the other way around. Pure and simple, the faults of Enemy at the Gates are those of the Euro-style international co-production from way back: a pervasive phoniness, a sense of unreality that infests even the drama's smallest moments. Of course, as with any super-expensive spectacle, there are strong points. Here, in the production design and in Robert Fraisse's handsome cinematography, the producers got what they paid for. And, surrounded mostly by ultra-superficial Brits, Ed Harris actually goes to the trouble of creating a meticulously believable character in Koenig. Which, I suppose, is the final irony of Enemy at the Gates: It's a movie where you may well be tempted to root for the Nazi--I mean, the American.

Harris is unquestionably one of our best actors, and he only seems to get better with the passing years. Unfortunately, he's often given the chore of outshining the movie that surrounds him. You might not expect that dilemma to afflict Pollock--a movie that Harris created from the ground up as a vehicle for himself--but so it does. I went into this biopic of painter Jackson Pollock with decent-sized expectations. But an hour into the movie, my thoughts boiled down to a four-word review: "Like watching paint drip."

Obviously, the acting isn't the problem. Harris (who's nominated for an Oscar) and the rest of the cast--especially Marcia Gay Harden as Pollock's long-suffering opposite number--are all excellent. The problem, which plagues many films mounted by actors, is that the strength of the acting and our presumed interest in the subject matter are expected to carry all the weight. They don't. The film needs to give us a challenging, unusual reading of Pollock and his mid-20th-century abstract expressionist milieu. Instead, it serves up a canned, artily dark, unrelievedly prosaic chronicle that, to me, was almost preternaturally boring.

Things do pick up a bit, thankfully, in the last hour, when Pollock discovers his trademark drip style. Here the film actually conveys a sense of intoxicated discovery and appreciation of the creative process. But it's too little too late. Ultimately, Pollock is one of those movies that wants you to like it because of its important subject, serious approach and earnestly committed cast. Like many art films that presume so much, it ends up an exercise in self-congratulatory tedium. EndBlock

  • Ed Harris is the best thing about "Enemy at the Gates" and "Pollock."

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